An international soccer year with more lows than highs. A year where the FAI said goodbye to their senior men’s soccer manager. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the year that was and looks ahead to 2024.
A daunting Euros qualification group with France and The Netherlands in the mix. The Latvia 3-2 win raised more questions than answers heading into the French home fixture.
A super start but then the tempo and concentration dropped to allow Latvia a foothold in the contest. Ogbene’s goal midway through the second half enough to secure a friendly win. The French dress rehearsal failed to hit the brief for Stephen Kenny and the team. Media were circling.
France at home to kickoff the European qualification campaign. The Aviva Stadium atmosphere was superb. France uncomfortable throughout as the Republic of Ireland delivered a defiant performance with good defensive shape and Ogbene providing an attacking outlet throughout.
The game winner from Pavard at the start of the second half was self-inflicted, straight after the break. Over elaboration with the ball in a dangerous area given the treatment it deserved. Nathan Collins’ header on another day goes in but the magnificent save from Maignan ensured France left Dubin with all three points.
The issue with the Stephen Kenny era was after each rousing performance that you thought perhaps the team had turned the corner, they would deliver a flat performance. The Greece away fixture was when the Stephen Kenny era finished.
Ample opportunity to prepare the side for the fixture with warm weather training in Turkey but the performance in all areas fell well short of the standards required.
Greece exploiting Republic of Ireland flank vulnerabilities. Minimal in-game changes made by management. 2-1 win to Greece. Doherty’s sending off summed up the frustration with the performance.
The Gibraltar home game demanded that Republic of Ireland get on the front foot from minute one but it was a nervous, passive performance early. No attacking width and poor final third quality until Mikey Johnston came in to weave his magic to open the game with an early goal. 3-0 win.
France away was expected to be tough and it did not disappoint. A 2-0 loss which could have been more only for the brilliance of Gavin Bazunu. The Netherlands home game saw an early penalty from Adam Idah but defensive vulnerabilities again. Gakpo and Weghorst did the rest.
The final nail in the coffin for the Stephen Kenny was the Greek home loss. The pregame commentary dominated with the Keith Andrews espionage claim on an Irish spy assisting Greece. The accusation were unfounded and only galvanized Gus Poyet and team for this fixture.
The story perhaps a diversion tactic to take the heat from the manager but it was miscalculated and show naivety in the extreme.
A comfortable 0-2 win for Greece who again plundered down the flank for the Giakoumakis opener and then a swift counter attack exposing Ireland shape in transition. Republic of Ireland staring at fourth place in a six team pool.
Gibraltar away fixture saw a 4-0 win but the damage was done in the qualification campaign. The Netherlands then launched into an epic party once Weghorst went unopposed for thirty meters to score the only goal in a 1-0 win.
The New Zealand friendly game will be remembered for James McClean signing off on his international career. The game also proved to be Stephen Kenny’s last game in charge of the side. A 1-1 draw over a New Zealand who should have won given their second half showing.
FAI did not take long to complete their retrospective on the qualification campaign. The statistics made for uncomfortable reading.
Ten games played. Three wins secured against Latvia and Gibraltar twice, six losses and one draw. Thirteen goals scored (ten of those against Latvia and Gibraltar) and thirteen goals conceded with only two clean sheets secured against Gibraltar.
International football is an unforgiving place when results and performances dip at a rate of knots. Kenny and management remained steadfast until the end on their passing philosophy but opposition were able to pick holes in the system deployed.
The long range goals, the goal concession after half-time, the lack of midfield control and player leadership defensively at key moments evident.
Players lost faith in the management team long before the New Zealand contest. The ability to look up and make a forward pass a forgotten art form as passing was conservative and lacked conviction in the second part of the year.
Stephen Kenny tried his utmost. He further established the pathway from U21 to the senior ranks. Kenny provided twenty-six players with their international opportunity. The fruits of this decision will only be really evaluated with the new management team going forward.
His passing roadmap vision was quite ambitious. For the roadmap to work, it required a consistent message from the backroom staff and there lay a fundamental problem. The turnover of backroom staff around Kenny muddied the execution of the vision. Players became uncertain and nervous as the era went on when it should have been vice versa.
The preparations particularly for the Greece away fixture in June need to be called to account. What happened during this training camp? Were the players overtrained? Were the players fully engaged with the tactical setup for the Athens encounter? What were the management / player dynamics on this training camp?
The new manager (yet to be announced) inherits a side who have lost confidence and ability to win games. The new hire will look to embrace certain elements of the Kenny era in terms of retaining possession but playing in the right areas. Evan Ferguson and the service provided to the striker is an area of focus early.
The new management team cannot do this alone. The player group will see turnover. McClean has retired and I would expect other loyal servants to make calls early in 2024. The player group available for selection need to show more leadership and organisation on the pitch particularly in the central midfield area.
The squad has potential to improve but they must play to their strengths in terms of playing football in the right areas and provide more support to our strikers. The new management team must pick players who are playing regularly for their clubs and not hang their hat on past player reputation.
2024 needs to be a year of renewal for the side. An interesting watch to see how the side fare. The hope is that the team have hit rock bottom. Let’s hope it has reached a plateau and the side start to deliver results and cohesive performances next year.